In assessing Elizabeth Sewell's work as a writer of fiction it is interesting to note that she did not think of herself as a novelist. Indeed, by her definition she was an anti-novelist, and she did her best work when she followed her own bent. Miss Sewell's statement concerning Ivors (1856) conveys her understanding of the word "novel":
Ivors, which succeeded Cleve Hall in 1856, was my first attempt at a regular novel, or a story in which love is the essential interest. Up to the time when I wrote it, I had always tried to show that life could be happy, and its events of importance apart from marriage. I thought, and I think still, that marriage is a beginning, not an end and that it is very misleading to young people to represent it in a different light. But love is, of course, a very prominent factor in human existence, and having fairly well established my reputation as a writer of fiction without it, I thought that I might venture to introduce it, endeavouring, if possible, to avoid the usual ending — "and so they were married, and lived happily ever after." [Autobiography, p. 102]
Aside from Ivors, the only other work which Miss Sewell classified as a novel was A Glimpse of the World (1863), of which she writes: "It is unquestionably a novel, except that the love affairs do not directly concern the heroine. I fancy, from remarks which were made at the time the book was published, that some persons thought I had rather diverged from the right path in attempting a Tale which contained a decidedly sensational marriage incident. They supposed that I always wrote for children, and A Glimpse of the World as therefore a disappointment" (Autobiography, pp. 115-16).
Not since Laneton Parsonage (1846-1848) had Miss Sewell actually written for children. It is curious that the classification established by Amy Herbert in 1844 should have persisted through two decades. A Glimpse of the World is disappointing on other grounds, however. The characters never come to life, despite the fact that in Myra Cameron Miss Sewell "had only to note down what I should have done or felt myself in her place, and at her age [sixteen]" (Autobiography, p. 116). The journey through Germany and the Tyrol which constitute Myra's "glimpse of the world" does not mesh with mood and incident as do the journey through Spain in After Life and the travels through Italy in Ivors. As for the "sensational marriage episode, "the bride-to-be has been made so unsympathetic that no one really minds when Charles Verney leaves Myra's sister Rosamond waiting at the altar and goes off to marry his earlier fiancée, the wraithlike Louisa Stewart, several days before Louisa's death.
In this study of Elizabeth Missing Sewell no attempt has been made to discuss the novels in the order of their writing, principally because a develop- mental study of Miss Sewell's craft as a novelist would not be particularly rewarding. One can note trends in theme and subject matter, but any attempt to assess literary quality would point to peaks and valleys rather than a steady ascent toward competence. One might, for example, label 1844-1847 the theologico-didactic period, noting that Gertrude communicates doctrine less directly than Amy Herbert, Laneton Parsonage or Margaret Percival. The last mentioned would be the most significant novel of this group for its portrayal of a young girl's psyche in conflict. Similarly, the final period of Miss Sewell's fiction, beginning with Ivors in 1856 and ending with After Life in 1868, might be termed the travelogue period, but one would have to except Ursula (1858), which contains few foreign episodes but some of Miss Sewell's best fiction. This group is, on the whole, of fairly high quality — which might lead one to infer an upgrade in the author's craft — but for the fact that A Glimpse of the World is so poorly done. The "middle period" — for lack of a comprehensive descriptive phrase — includes five years during which the author's two worst novels, The Earl's Daughter (1850) and Cleve Hall (1855), bracket one "fair-to-middling" novel, Katherine Ashton (1854) and the author's very best novel, The Experience of Life (1852), which falls just short of the half-way point in Miss Sewell's fiction-writing years. Miss Sewell, it might be noted, began publishing novels at the age of twenty-nine and ended at fifty-three, her best work having been completed with the publication of Ursula in 1858, when the author was forty-three.
Of the thirteen Sewell novels at least four might be read with some interest if reissued in the 1970s. These four would be Margaret Percival, Ivors, Ursula, and The Experience of Life. Margaret Percival and Ursula and perhaps Ivors would profit by abridgement. Not so The Experience of Life, which seems already a distillation. A Bildungsroman in the best sense, it tries to be no thing but what it is. There is no straining after adventure or suspense, no effort to create a "novel" in Miss Sewell's sense, no shifting of the scene to foreign shores, little class consciousness, no theological stance beyond practical, middle-way Anglican piety. No German barons leer over gaining tables; no lovers meet by chance on the Lake of St. Wolfgang. In short there are no characters that Miss Sewell might not have met on the Isle of Wight in Bonchurch Village School, a Ventnor morning room. or a Newport drawing room. The Experience of Life is what George Moore termed Anne Brontë's Agnes Grey, "a narrative simple and beautiful as a muslin dress."
Economy of characterization, plot and description contribute to the effect of simplicity in The Experience of Life. There are young Sarah Mortimer, her sisters and brothers and parents. Aunt Colston and Horatia Gray, Uncle Ralph and Miss Cole, Lady Emily and Mr. Rivers, Miss Grant and Mr. Beresford, along with assorted servants and minor characters. Dominating the novel is Sarah's great aunt and godmother. Aunt Sarah Mortimer, whose no-nonsense views and warm affection bring Sally from an unhappy childhood through a difficult adolescence to a serene spinsterhood.
Sally's growing-up is viewed from the perspective of an old maid of sixty looking back on her life. "Emotion recollected in tranquility" is heightened by the use of first-person point of view. This was Miss Sewell's earliest use of the first-person narrative later employed to good effect in Ursula, Home Life, and After Life. What plot there is centers around the Mortimer family. The older brothers and sisters are worldly; Sally profits by their mistakes and in turn "brings up" her younger siblings Hester and Herbert according to Aunt Sarah's teachings. Father is kindhearted but indolent and improvident. Mother pious but ineffectual. Uncle Ralph and Horatia Gray conspire to keep from young Sarah's family the inheritance that is rightfully theirs with the result that Sally learns to be independent. Sally also learns to overcome her own nervous fears, to manage her indifferent health, and to accept with thankful grace her position as old-maid school teacher.
Economy of incident accords well with the narrator's philosophy that "outward circumstances do not form the history of existence" (Experience of Life, p. 12). We first see Sally as a child of approximately twelve learning that not everyone is good. Uncle Ralph, the "sharp, determined, eager man of business of the nineteenth century, " brings the "November mists" with him when he argues with Sally's father that the latter's income is based on the interest of twenty thousand pounds rather than of twenty-five thousand. In Chapter II we hear Aunt Sarah, tall and striking at seventy, answering Sally's inquiry into Uncle Ralph's financial state with statements like "That's as may be . . . ; you have head and hands, use them." Aunt Sarah's house in Carsdale blends the particular with the cosmic in a way that serves to characterize the woman herself. Roast chicken and Oliver biscuits can almost be tasted—a sensory island in the timeless world evoked by the "few evergreens" out front and the "antediluvian" gardener-butler.
We next encounter Sally at fifteen, about to be confirmed — an event of considerably less interest to her sisters than Mrs. Blair's party, which is to take place on the evening of Sally's confirmation day. Sally can now perceive that Caroline is ambitious and Joanna vain; their gifts are "prudential cleverness" and great beauty respectively. Sally willingly plays the Cinderella role as her sisters prepare for their first evening party. One notices how few strokes are required to create Sarah's loneliness once evening has come:
I was alone with the two ends of unsnuffed candles testifying to the economy of the household; the unreplenished fire, which 'would do very well for Miss Sarah till bed-time;' the undrawn curtains, and the comfortless-looking table, upon which stood an inkstand, a few books, two or three empty coffee-cups, and a plats with a stray slice of very thin bread and butter, I sat myself down in an easy-chair, and leant my head upon my hand, and felt very unhappy. It was not only that I was solitary, that my head ached, that the excitement of the day had been too much for me.
Doubtless these circumstances all contributed to depress my spirits, but there was a wretchedness above and beyond all; a sort of presentiment that the present hour was the type of my future life. Sickly, plain, and indifferently educated, what better could I expect than to live in shade, whilst others glittered in sunshine? Experience of Life, p. 30
The perception gained by Sally in this scene begins when little 1 ;; e comes in dressing gown and slippers and asks, "Must you sit here and be miserable?" Sally, in response, asks herself a question, "Was there really any must?" In answer she stirs the fire, snuffs the candles, and rings for tea.
When she is still fifteen or sixteen Sally undergoes two traumatic experiences which seriously endanger her nervous health. First, she finds her grandfather dead in his rocking chair — an event handled with surprising restraint. Sally is only beginning to come to terms with her first direct experience of death when she is upset by the news that her family will move to East Side, a country house a short drive from Carsdale. Objects that she is sorting through remind her of the past. "As I sat in the nursery window-seat, turning them over in my lap," Sarah later writes, "I felt as if that past was about to die" (p. 43). From the double impact of death and change, Sarah's nervous headaches become so severe that she is sent to Aunt's Sarah's to recuperate.
At Aunt Sarah's there is comfort in the brightly blazing fire and the "air of great neatness." Fortified by Oliver biscuits and mulled elder wine, Sally feels ready to face the "immensely-white" spare bedroom with its "white paper, white dimity curtains to the four-post bed, white dimity window curtains," and an engraving of Lord Nelson's death. By the end of a week in the shelter of Aunt Sarah, Sally feels ready to accept death, but not ready to meet life at home amid the cares of a large family. This time Aunt Sarah's cure is the gift of laughter, for, she says, "If you can laugh when you go home, you are fit to go" (p. 61).
Back at home, Sarah is troubled by the lack of structure and absence of assigned duties with supervision — the sense of never managing to do what she wishes, and sometimes not knowing what she wishes to do. "Grope on, " advises Aunt Sarah; "it is good exercise" (p. 95).
Sally's next trial takes the form of Aunt Colston, who dispenses advice more freely than Aunt Sarah and without the same effect. Her remarks writes the narrator, "slid down the palate of one's mind without leaving much flavor behind" (p. 111). Her admonitions are circuitous to the point that Sarah would rather hear her other aunt say "Sally, don't be a goose. "
Without being always quite so blunt Aunt Sarah's sayings are arresting and aphoristic — for example, "People who have two sets of troubles are better off than those who have one" (P. 140). The second set of troubles, she submits, divert them from the first. Much of Aunt Sarah's wisdom has to do with marriage and spinsterhood. She warns against marrying just for material advantage on the one hand and, on the other, refusing to accept spinsterhood gracefully. Both these mistakes are soon to be exemplified by Sally's sisters. Caroline marries the well-to-do but uncouth Mr. Blair; Joanna joins that group of old maids who "are always pining for what they can't get, and dressing, and talking, and skipping about as though they were eighteen" (p. 146).
Aunt Sarah's advice as "an old maid of seventy-four" is very down-to-earth: "So, child, if you ever have an offer, and it's a good and right one, and such as you like, and your conscience approves, say 'yes,' and be happy; but if there are things against it, or if you can't take to it kindly, say 'no,' and be thankful" (pp. 147-48). Lady Emily Rivers, the inevitable pious, aristocratic beauty with whom the Sewell heroine is fascinated, seconds this advice, insisting that it is degrading to "dwell upon marriage as the object of life" (p. 160).
Ten to twelve years are skipped over. Sarah is now twenty-eight — not a happy age because it is "too old, and too young. " The scene is a dinner party in Harley Street in London, where Mrs. Caroline Blair now lives with her husband and six children. Sarah, preoccupied with worries concerning her father's health, the family fortunes, and Hester's happiness, feels dizzy from the "whirl of conversation." There follows a passage remarkable for its power to evoke the sense of unreality that one can sometimes experience on social occasions — the loneliness one sometimes feels in the midst of a crowd:
It did appear to me a dream—those mingled voices, those words of deepest interest, those eager faces round the long table, with the glittering silver and glass, and the dazzling lights. Were they dreaming, or was I? Were we beings of one world, or of two? Had the things I saw about me any value, or were they mere phantasms, tinsel, delusions? What was this existence about which all were so eager? — what did it mean? — what was its object? I thought till my senses grew dizzy; and then another idea possessed me — one which had often pressed upon me — that we all must have a certain number of words to say in our lives, and that every time we spoke the number grew less; and I listened to the quick conversation with a feeling of terror, as if the very accents of our lips were the summons to eternity. [p. 191]
Another family crisis follows. Sally's father dies; she and her mother move to a smaller place in Carsdale; Sally takes pupils. Only Aunt Sarah can dissuade her from attempting to be the sole support of her mother and Hester. "Which is the nearest related to your mother of all her children? ' asks Aunt Sarah. "Undertake as much labour as you like, child, . . . but never undertake a responsibility which does not belong to you" (p. 228).
When she is almost thirty, Sarah receives a propose of marriage from a clergyman whom she "esteems" highly. This whole episode is dispensed with in two pages; Sarah regretfully refuses out of a sense of obligation to her mother and sisters, and "the day-dream was kept under" until "in time it ceased to give me pain" (p. 259). At eighty-five Aunt Sarah counsels Sally, "When you are left alone, child, don't shut yourself up and get odd ways . . . and remember, when God cuts off the shoots of our own interest, it is that we may graft upon our hearts the interests of others" (p. 313). "Others" of course include pupils and former pupils, foster-children sent by God.
Within a few years Aunt Sarah dies a peaceful death and Sally, now thirty but "forty in appearance and feeling" enters upon her own spinsterhood — "happier at forty than thirty, — happier at fifty than forty, — happiest of all at sixty." For, Sally writes, "It is better to be travelling towards age than away from. youth" (p. 326).
So ends The Experience of Life. It has been, as the title suggests, a book about living and growing older and dying, about marrying and nor marrying, about discovering who one is and is not — all very elemental parts of the human experience. Simplicity and directness give the book its power. In Aunt Sarah Miss Sewell has found just the right vehicle for keeping sententiousness in character.
The only "set piece" in the novel is the account of Lady Emily Rivers' Blue School for girls of the serving class (pp. 247-49), where the girls live in to study homemaking and the basic academic studies, then go into homes for on-the-job training. The prototype of this school actually existed. Miss Sewell states in the Autobiography (pp. 96-97). Other details are drawn from life as well. Aunt Sarah's home and household are "Great-aunt Clarke's, " but Aunt Sarah is an imaginary figure — the kind of confidante the author so much wished for as a young girl.
It is a tribute to the taste of the mid-nineteenth century reading public that a book of genuine merit was the most popular of the Sewell novels, according to the Autobiography (p. 96). Possibly Mrs. Clayton, the former pupil who signs herself "I.B.C., " was somewhat prejudiced in Miss Sewell's favor,when she compares The Experience of Life to Mrs. Gaskell's Cranford and Miss Austen's "miniatures," but here is her contribution on the best loved Sewell novel to "Literary and Personal Influence":
Few characters can be more vigorous than that of Aunt Sarah, few pictures of English middle-class provincial life more delicately drawn. The book in this way ranks with Cranford, and its delightful English places it almost on a par with the daintily painted miniatures of Miss Austen. Mrs. Vaughan, one of Miss Sewell's devoted American admirers, writes: "Miss Sarah Mortimer has helped me in many a hard place". Of course! for she spoke the words of wisdom which her originator gave to her "children, " as those who were taught at Ashcliff delighted to call themselves. Truly a large and wide-spreading family! [1907 Autobiography, pp. 228-29]
Another contributor to "Literary and Personal Influence" in the 1907 Autobiography is Miss E. [Elizabeth?] Wordsworth of Lincoln, who after dutifully acknowledging Laneton Parsonage's religious influence, casts her vote for Experience of Life:
Were I, however, asked to name my favourite I should without hesitation name Experience of Life. In it I think the author achieved her greatest successes in character painting, and made Miss Sarah Mortimer a vivid personal reality to many among us. The shrewd old lady's sayings often even now recur to one's mind — and there is a pleasure in these bustling days in sitting even in imagination in her quiet old-fashioned parlour listening to Miss Cole's tranquil reading of the Spectator. How deliciously soothing it must have been! or in stealing out of doors and surreptitiously pinching the leaves of Molly's and Betty's lemon plants ! and did ever any coffee taste so good as that which charmed away Sarah's nervous headache after an evening of misery? [pp. 231-32]
A more objective critic of Miss Sewell's novels, undoubtedly, than her friends and former students is the author of "Ivors, and other Tales, " who finds The Experience of Life "the best of this lady's works, and furnishing the happiest example of her peculiar powers. " This anonymous critic deems Aunt Sarah "not only a repository of admirable maxims, but a real old woman" whose common sense views are expressed in an original way (Christian Remembrancer, 33:323-24).
At least two present-day critics — Margaret Maison and Robert Colby — are also convinced of the merits of The Experience of Life. Mrs. Maison in Search Your Soul, Eustace: A Survey of the Religious Novel in the Victorian Age (1961) speaks of this novel not only as Miss Sewell's best book but as "a neglected treasure of High Church fiction, "a "spinster's apology" with Sally Mortimer a self-portrait; Mrs. Maison finds The Experience of Life to be further "a most readable novel, a penetrating study of character and a valuable piece of confessional literature" (Maison, pp.. 46-47). Margaret Maison's predecessor in the field of the Victorian religious novel, seems, on the other hand, to have missed the point of its being confessional literature. All that Joseph Ellis Baker, author of The Novel and the Oxford Movement (1932), can find to say for Miss Sewell's masterpiece is that it has "a peculiar title for a novel telling of a maiden lady and her efforts to support her mother." The heroine. Baker continues, "finds her true home in the Church, where she goes morning and evening for worship. " Evidently Baker does not consider The Experience of Life a representative Sewell novel since he assigns to Miss Sewell the place next to Charlotte Yonge as "the greatest Anglo-Catholic novelist before Shorthouse" (p. 116).
Robert Colby, in Fiction with a Purpose (1967), perceives "an especially suggestive resemblance" between Charlotte Brontë's Villette and Miss Sewell's Experience of Life, noting that the Sewell novel was published a year earlier than its Brontë counterpart. The two works are alike, Colby points out, in being "a spiritual autobiography" of 'an elderly spinster now at peace with the world looking back over early years of frustration and sorrow."2 The ordinary, unromantic character of each heroine is stressed. Miss Sewell's descriptive phrase, "sickly, plain, and indifferently educated," applies equally well to Miss Brontë's Lucy Snowe. Either heroine could be, in Colby's phrase "Christiana, Every-woman, and ordinary woman." Both protagonists are teachers; both have to face the loss of loved ones; both learn, in Miss Sewell's phrase, "to put down the day dream"; both must learn to deal with religions other than their own. Although Villette contains more "incident" than The Experience of Life, it contains less than Jane Eyre, which suggests, according to Colby, that each author "was trying to move away from the conventions of fiction and in one direction of the true life history" (Fiction with a Purpose, p. 201). The pity is that Miss Sewell was incapable of providing a Paul Emmanuel for her heroine. Had she been able to handle Paul's intellectual-caveman style of courtship, conscience would not have allowed her to give her Anglican heroine a Roman Catholic lover. There is no denying that Miss Sewell's imaginative range was smaller, her sympathies narrower than. Charlotte Brontë's. Still one could make a case for The Experience of Life being structurally the better book of the two. It has a dramatic unity and sharpness of focus lacking in Villette. It would show up very well indeed alongside Villette's prototype, The Professor. To turn to another member of the Brontë family. Miss Sewell's novel would, in subtlety, power, and truth to life, outrank Anne Brontë's Agnes Grey, which comments on a still narrower sphere in a more conventional manner/as the narrator tells of her life in two governess posts followed by a short, sedate courtship and marriage to a young curate.
To assess Miss Sewell's fiction as a whole is a more complex matter than to evaluate any one individual novel. Nevertheless, from the 1840s up through the teens of this century, her critics have been making pontifical pronouncements with the greatest of ease. The reviewer writing for Churchman's Family Magazine in 1866, for example, takes a very condescending stance toward Miss Sewell's novels in the following appraisal:
They are not works of profound wisdom or sagacity; they have none of the humour of Mr. Sewell, nor do they display any of that intellectual power which is possessed by several of our leading lady novelists. But they are thoroughly lady-like, refined, and pure; books, in a word, of which it may be said, with absolute truth, that if it is unlikely they should do any good, it is impossible they should do any harm. They are stories which the youth of both sexes, between sixteen and three-and-twenty, might be much better employed in reading than in imbibing the depraved atmosphere which surrounds "Lady Audley's Secret," "Guy Livingstone, " and "Recommended to Mercy." [Reprinted in Littell's Living Age, 88:454.]
In two respects, however. Churchman's critic finds Elizabeth Sewell novels superior to William's Hawkstone: greater knowledge of human nature and a better balance between story telling and didacticism. Miss Sewell's "special excellence, " according to this critic, lies in the fact that in her novels the story is "never overlaid by the purpose" a verdict more recent critics disagree with.
John Cordy Jeaffreson, in Novels and Novelists (1859), also praises Miss Sewell's ability to keep her religious message within bounds:
Her tales are universal favourites, being liked by most who do not concur in many of the opinions and sentiments on minor religious subjects contained in them. It would be unfair to classify them with "religious novels", for religious novels as a rule are very dull, not- withstanding their bitterness of personal satire, and very feeble, notwithstanding their acrimony; whereas Miss Sewell's stories, pure of the slightest approach to dogmatism and cant, are gentle, womanly and vigorous pictures of life, in which the views of the school to which the authoress belongs are never obtruded on our notice, but only appeal as a soft, solemn light, hallowing to her all objects of human interest.3
"E. Foxton" (Sarah H. Palfrey), the most unqualified admirer of Miss Sewell's art among her contemporaries, places her in a class with Jane Austen in her ability to handle characterization. In the Christian Examiner of September 1854, appears this accolade:
The two delicious old fools, Mrs. Courtenay and Miss Debrett, are portrayed, or made to portray themselves, (for our author, safe in the possession of true dramatic power, gets out of the way as often as possible, and leaves her creations to tell their own story, ) with a quiet humor which challenges no dangerous comparison with that of the writer of "Pride and Prejudice." [Christian Examiner 57:187]
Although Miss Palfrey is possibly the only critic to suggest, even by implication, that Miss Sewell's work is on the same level as Jane Austen's, the two names are coupled in many reviews, probably because Miss Austen was the most generally admired writer of the domestic novel. The critic who reviewed Margaret Percival for The Spectator of January 2, 1847, places Miss Percival's creator in the "school of Miss Austen" and, with remarkable insight, predicts dire consequences for the world of fiction if didacticism takes over the domestic novel. Miss Austen's school should be imitated with caution, the critic warns. At the very least domesticity can become "insipid and tiresome" in the hands of a less able writer. If to "a transcript of the common events and persons of everyday life" are added "the reveries of contemplative minds, and discourses about religion," the writer is "aghast at the floodgates of elegant mediocrity that may be opened upon the world, should this style become fashionable." If the Spectator critic suspects that the author of Margaret Percivall is a woman or that women will become the chief purveyors of the "elegant mediocrity" to which our author assists in opening the "floodgates, " he does not make a point of the feminine gender. Instead he leaves it for George Eliot, writing anonymously in Westminster Review in January, 1852, to complain of religious novels by silly women who strive for "a didactic effect by an inflated style of reflection, and by melodramatic incident, instead of faithfully depicting life and leaving it to teach its own lesson."
George Eliot seems to enjoy tearing to shreds religious novels of the "oracular" sort in the now famous essay on "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists" (1856). Elizabeth Sewell's novels gain stature alongside the samples offered by George Eliot. "Insipid and tiresome" Miss Sewell's writing may sometime be. "Melodramatic" it may occasionally be; "inflated" it almost never is. Elizabeth Sewell creates no model clergyman who "held not of marriage in the marketable kind, after a social desecration" or suffered because "sleep had not visited his divided heart, where tumult, in varied type and combination, the aggregate feelings of grief and joy."6 Miss Sewell has better judgment than to bring blind Irish harpers into Sunday school festivals or leave the revelation of important secrets to crazy gipsies on their deathbeds in the manner of which George Eliot complains in "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists."
Less than a year after George Eliot's strictures on silly religious novels appeared, the reviewer of Ivors, and other Tales was to praise Elizabeth Sewell's style for its adequacy and the absence of the excesses which George Eliot condemned. Miss Sewell's prose is described as "clear, cultivated, easy, and flowing, with a perfect command for all she wishes to express" — not "distinctive" but "measured, expressive, and harmonious, — a higher praise than our readers may be at first disposed to consider it in these days, when the discovery has been made by so many, — especially lady writers [italics his], that whole books can be written without having recourse to their own language at all" (Christian Remembrancer 33:294).After exonerating Miss Sewell from falling into the "feminine snare" of writing non-English, our critic goes on to assure his readers that she nevertheless possesses a "feminine mind; content with its own sphere, tender, sympathizing, religious, cultivating its narrower field of thought and observation, with no temptation to stray beyond" (Christian Remembrancer 33:295).
Miss Sewell was no doubt gratified by such sentiments. Was not a feminine mind content with its sphere, after all, the end of a woman's education? That Miss Sewell did not admire the masculine woman we know from three satirical portraits. In The Experience of Life Horatia Grey, with her mannish walk,, is predicted to become a "managing wife" if she ever marries,and does become one on marrying Uncle Ralph Mortimer for his money. In Ursula Millicent Weir, who contrives to look as much like a man as "a woman's dress will allow," is shown to be wrong-headed in chasing after her father and ignoring her mother. In Ivors, Mme Reinhard's striving after a man's independence is shown to have serious consequences.
As for the notion of a woman writing. Miss Sewell herself had to overcome a native prejudice against female writers. Up until the age of twenty or so she had possessed "a great dislike to authoresses"; furthermore, she writes in the Autobiography, that she "once startled a young lady who was dining with us by stating it as my opinion that women had no business to write" (p. 53). As an educator Miss Sewell, in turn, took a dim view of "incipient novelists" whose thirst after notoriety deludes them into believing themselves capable of writing fiction. If they must write, she argued in Principles of Education, let them do it, but give them an abstract of history to condense, and point out their mistakes and infelicities.. The effect is bound to be salutary. Miss Sewell argues, for: "If there is any real talent, the practice of careful composition will be most useful; and if there is not, there will be a self-conviction which will ultimately crush the foolish conceit and ambition" (Principles of Education, p. 245).
Perhaps Miss Sewell's abhorrence of literary conceit and ambitions stemmed, in part at least, from her conviction, expressed in 1865, that "no writer of fiction can expect his works to be universally read for more than four or five years, " by the end of which period his early works would have become obsolete. Ironically she was discussing Charles Dickens (Principles of Education, p. 323). Measured by this yardstick her fiction, despite her own feelings that she had outlived her reputation as a popular authoress, fared quite well. We do not know whether parents went on naming their children "Amy Herbert" after 18597 but we do know that her novels were reissued in a collected edition as late as 1886. The reviewer of the posthumously published Autobiography (1907) edited by Miss Sewell's niece, Eleanor L. Sewell, reminds readers of High Church fiction that she was, of the Anglican group, "the earliest to write and the last to pass away." Religious novels such as Miss Sewell wrote, are, the 1907 reviewer fears, no longer read because "the analytic, the sensational, the amorous, the society novel has pushed them from their stools."8
Fifty-two years earlier, when an anonymous review of Cleve Hall appeared in North American Review (71:543), the religious novel still took "precedence in literature" and Miss Sewell was accorded the right, "from her length of service at the altar, to be described as the high-priestess." Miss Sewell's influence on at least one generation of Anglican young ladies is scarcely debatable. Until 1853, when The Heir of Redclyffe appeared. Miss Sewell's primacy was uncontested. After that, her name came to be coupled with that of Charlotte Yonge, who gradually outstripped her in popularity and in turn came to be rivalled by the creator of a very different genre of ecclesiastical fiction, Anthony Troll ope. As for other women authors. Miss Yonge's and Miss Sewell's readership defected ultimately to the Brontës and George Eliot. This might have happened sooner had not Jane Eyre been pronounced "coarse" by High Church critics and George Eliot's works been forbidden to the young in many an Anglican household (Cruse, p. 61).
In the forties and fifties, first Miss Sewell, then Miss Sewell and Miss Yonge together reigned supreme, at least among the young in good Anglican households. Amy Cruse quotes Lucy Lyttleton, afterwards Lady Cavendish, who said she would "place in the first rank of books that influenced my girlhood Miss Sewell's and Miss Yonge's, " and Lady Rose Fane, who said that she and many of her friends read all the novels of these two authors (Cruse, pp. 46, 59).
So little existed in the way of High Church fiction before Amy Herbert that Miss Sewell might with some justification be credited with creating the genre. There were the with whom Elizabeth and William Sewell collaborated in The Sketches (1848). The Reverend William Gresley and the Reverend Francis Paget9 were writing Tractarian novels before Miss Sewell. If these two gentlemen deserve to be called the "fathers" of Tractarian fiction,10 then Miss Sewell deserves to be called one of its mothers, along with Newman's sister, Harriett Mozley, who published The Fairy Bower three years before Amy Herbert, and Lady Georgiana Fullerton, later a Roman Catholic, who was still an Anglican when she published Ellen Middleton in the same year as Amy Herbert.11 All three were born within three years of each other.
How does Elizabeth Sewell rank as a novelist when placed alongside the other members of this peer group of women who helped to launch Anglo-Catholic fiction? Let us look briefly at a few representative novels. The Fairy Bower invites comparison with Amy Herbert because, as has already been established. Miss Sewell drew on Mrs. Mozley's novel for her main character and basic situation. In one of the "conversations recorded by Miss Yonge in her early days" (1844), a group of friends compare The Fairy Bower with Amy Herbert. Charlotte questions the realism of Rose's death in the Sewell novel, submits that Colonel Herbert's return is "a little theatrical, " states that her father cried over the novel, but refuses to answer directly the question, "You like The Fairy Bower better than Amy Herbert, do you not?" Charlotte's evasive answer is, "I like Mrs. Herbert better than Mrs. Leslie."12 Mrs. Herbert, Charlotte explains, "knew how to manage her daughter better than Mrs. Leslie. " Grace Leslie, the heroine of The Fairy Bower, is only ten, yet Mrs. Leslie inquires less minutely into her daughter's affairs and gives her less direct guidance than Mrs. Herbert gives to her thirteen-year-old daughter. Miss Yonge's evasion of a choice between the two books is an interesting comment on all three authors, especially in the light of the fact that fifty-two years later Miss Yonge is still at a stalemate concerning her choice. In two letters to Miss M. E. Christie, dated at Otterbourne, December 8 and 10, 1896, Miss Yonge offers to lend her friend her own copy of The Fairy Bower. In the first letter she praises Mrs Mozley's three novels for their "wonderful cleverness and irony." In the second letter she explains, concerning The Fairy Bower; "There was some displeasure at Grace's reticence towards her mother, which was hardly natural in an only daughter, though it might be in a large family, and I really think both my Abbey Church and Miss Sewell's Amy Herbert both came from the reaction" (Coleridge, p. 340).
Probably neither Miss Yonge nor Miss Sewell would have agreed with Newman's opinion that his sister's tale, The Fairy Bower, had only one fault — that it was "too brilliant"13 — unless Miss Yonge was getting at the same thing when she spoke of the "wonderful cleverness and irony" in The Fairy Bower and its sequels, The Lost Brooch and Louisa. What is most impressive about the book is the author's awareness, despite her overt didacticism, of the limits of education and the unpredictable character of child-rearing — an awareness not manifested in Elizabeth Sewell until her final novels. An almost maddening, though life-like ambiguity runs through the interplay between parents, children, and teachers, which Kathleen Tillotson effectually captures in the following summary:
'What does it teach?' The 'problem novel' or 'discussion novel', soon almost to dominate contemporary fiction, had hardly yet appeared. But one problem is at least posed in The Fairy Bower — that of child nurture and education in the wealthier classes. Home or school, governess or parents, liberty or prohibitions ? The story incidentally illustrated many different methods, even occasionally canvassed them in grownup discussion; but there are no easy answers. About a dozen children appear, aged from ten to sixteen and disposed between several families. There are five mothers and one governess. . . . But none seemed intended simply as a model or a warning. The relation of cause and effect is blurred, even as in life. The worldly mother who delegates her duties to grandmother, boarding schools, and nursemaids, and in holiday time lets the children rip, as long as they do not discredit her socially, has not (so far) obviously better or worst children than the strict mother who employs a governess, forbidding dancing, cards and dice, encouraging Bible puzzles and capping of texts. [Tillotsons, Mid-Victorian Studies, p. 41]
Amy Herbert lacks the subleties of The Fairy Bower. Miss Sewell's readers know what she intends to teach.
Mrs. Tillotson does not choose to discuss the structure of the novel. Here the critics' vote would be cast in favor of Amy Herbert. Miss Sewell, in her first novel, showed an aptness for smooth transitions which Mrs. Mozley lacked. Miss Sewell had an instinct for passing from scene to scene, from authorial comment to direct presentation without ruffling the linen-like texture of her writing. Excerpts from one paragraph of The Fairy Bower will illustrate Harriett Mozley's ineptness:
. Leslie told her little girl she must not mind such things too much; and after a little more talk, she proposed reading, and Grace immediately brought the books. As Grace is in the habit of giving accounts of passing events to her mamma, . . . it may not be out of place here to introduce, by way of contrast, Newton Grey's behaviour and conversation with his mother on the late unfortunate occasion; and in order to do so, it will be necessary to relate the affair of the evening before with Campbell Duff, which Grace was so unwilling to mention or allude to. It was as follows: . . . [The Fairy Bower, p. 73]
Elizabeth Sewell did well in deciding to make Amy Herbert thirteen rather than nine as she had originally intended (Autobiography, p. 72). In The Fairy Bower, Grace's repartee with Mr. Everard on the Graces and Muses is incredible for even a precocious child well up on her mythology. Nevertheless, had Harriett Mozley lived long enough to attempt something beyond the "children's story, " it would be interesting to know what sort of novelist she would have become.
Lady Georgiana Fullerton lived longer and wrote more novels than Mrs. Mozley, though she was shorter lived, by eighteen years, and much less prolific than Elizabeth Sewell. None of her other novels ever equalled Ellen Middleton, her first, in popularity. Joseph E. Baker characterizes this work as "one of the earliest Tractarian novels to attempt not merely a fictional framework for expository discussion, but an actual story, the very plot of which turns on a Catholic principle" (Baker, p. 19). The Catholic principle on which the story turns is the need for confession; the narrative device employed is the story within a story. Ellen is first seen as a broken, distraught woman, old before her time, kneeling in a cathedral. The canon of the cathedral, impressed by her suffering and her innate refinement, interests himself in her case. Convinced that forgiveness is impossible for her, Ellen is nevertheless promised absolution on receipt of her written confession, a document she has already begun.
The story of Ellen's life is told in a first-person narrative which takes up most of the novel. Involved at fifteen in the accidental death of a cousin but fearing to confess her involvement, Ellen learns to live with guilt and anxiety. Two persons know her secret. Henry Lovell, who is passionately in love with Ellen, and an old servant, Mrs. Tracy. As circumstances will have it Ellen falls in love with a stern self-righteous man named Edward, and Henry marries Alice, the saintly young granddaughter of the evil-minded old servant. Henry continues to suffer unrequited love for Ellen and schemes to make her his. Finding Ellen and Henry in private tryst and leaping to the wrong conclusion, Edward sends Ellen away. She goes to the cathedral town, where she is attempting to make her peace with God, when Canon Lacey finds her, reads her story, and brings about a reunion with Edward so that she may die forgiven by her husband as well as by the priest, who assures her of his rights to forgive sin on God's behalf — another Catholic doctrine, of course.
Lord Brougham, who read Ellen Middleton before its publication, pronounced it "rank popery. " Not so Charlotte Yonge, who defended its religious position and praised its "power and beauty, " commending the author's "analysis of passion" and skill at delineation. Miss Yonge, in the "appreciation" which Mrs. Oliphant asked her to write for Women Novelists of Queen Victoria's Reign (1897), expressed only one reservation concerning Ellen Middleton. Why, she wondered, did not Brougham and Charles Greville, the critics of her manuscript, advise her "to avoid the difficulty which makes the entire plot an impossibility, namely the omission of an inquest" on the death of Ellen's cousin?14 Surely Miss Yonge, who herself exercised considerable ingenuity in plotting a novel, knew the answer: The reader absorbed in a powerful story does not stop to inquire into the logic of an incident. Lady Fullerton was a mistress of melodrama to a degree that the above simplified plot summary can scarcely convey. To compare Ellen Middleton to Amy Herbert is to compare an apple to an orange. The former is more readable; the latter has more truth to life. Together they suggest the range of the mid- nineteenth century Anglo-Catholic fiction.
What Elizabeth Sewell may have thought of Georgiaria Fullerton, we do not know. That Lady Georgiana thought well of Miss Sewell we learn from a Fullerton novel of 1869, Mrs. Gerald's Niece. Here the author pauses in telling her story to editorialize on the state of the novel in England: "The immense change in England with regard to the books which take the greatest hold on the mind of youthful readers of the better sort, of those that shun in fiction unwholesome excitement is strikingly exemplified when we contrast the works of Miss Edgeworth with those of Miss Sewell, those of Miss Austin [sic] with Miss Yonge's."15
As to Charlotte Yonge, what does one say in a few sentences of a writer who was even more prolific than her friend Elizabeth M. Sewell and is still sufficiently liked to have inspired the creation of the Charlotte M. Yonge Society, an elitist group of fifteen British women writers?16
Elizabeth Sewell strikes one as the best of the Anglo-Catholic novelists only until one reads Charlotte Yonge. What the Athenaeum critic writes of Miss Sewell in 1907 exactly hits upon the main differences between the two: "She [Miss Sewell] had not Miss Yonge's light touch, lacked her less didactic rival's power of sprightly dialogue, could not portray, like her, the camaderie of a cultured English home" (Athenaeum, no. 4176:577). It is strange that the writer who had grown up with only one brother could portray family life so much more interestingly than the author who was one of a dozen. At least part of the secret is that Miss Yonge is able to take herself and her characters less seriously than her counterpart. She can also create masculine characters who are more lifelike than Miss Sewell's — for example Dr. May of The Daisy Chain, the careless, untidy but warmhearted widower left to rear ten children with the help of his next-eldest daughter Ethel, herself a fascinating blend of awkwardness, intellect, and moral strength.
In The Daisy Chain and its sequel, subtitled More Links in the Daisy Chain, we follow Ethel's domestic fortunes from the age of fifteen, when her mother dies, to the age of thirty, when she is still unmarried because her presence is essential to the welfare of "the children" and the happiness of her father. Ethel's personal sacrifices are quieter and more tranquil than those of a Sewell heroine, the religious sources other strength less directly presented. Still, through Ethel and her family. Charlotte Yonge makes many of the same points stressed in Sewell novels. Ethel May founds and teaches in a school for poor children; she helps to raise money for a new church at Cocksmoor; she interests herself in the problems other pupils' families; she submits to the wisdom of father and brothers. Miss Sewell's mistrust of human reason, especially for the female, is echoed in Ethel's sacrifice of advanced Greek studies to the cultivation of the household arts. Ethel's brother Norman, in turn, gives up the opportunity for a brilliant scholarly career to become a missionary to New Zealand, where in due course he receives his reward in the form of an archbishopric. Ethel's friend, Averil Ward, moves to America, where she influences an American girl with a Free Church background to appreciate "the fuller and more systematic doctrine, and the development of the beauty and daily guidance of the [Episcopal] Church."17 Averil's brother Leonard, meanwhile, learns patience through suffering as a prisoner convicted on circumstantial evidence of a crime he did not commit. In prison Leonard seems something of, a Billy Budd, but his difficulties in readjusting to society following his release are handled realistically.
Like Elizabeth Sewell, Charlotte Yonge is interested in the moral consequences of personal choice and human action. She stresses obedience and self-abnegation, resignation in the face of misfortune, which is always presumed to have been sent by God; yet her novels are only indirectly theologico-didactic. Baker illustrates Miss Yonge's indirectness in reference to the popular Heir of Redclyffe, where Guy Morville's consciousness of divine strength to overcome his passionate nature "translates into common terms of fiction a belief in the Grace of God overcoming Original Sin" (Baker, p. 109), and Guy's belief in baptismal regeneration translates into his assurance that baptism has given him something more than the whole world (Baker, p. 107).
In a paper entitled "Charlotte Yonge's Ethics: Some Unfashionable Virtues" in A Chaplet Katharine Briggs argues that Yonge makes palatable to the reader the unpopular virtues of chastity, humility, resignation, and filial piety by making her characters behave consistently and credibly within the framework of a universe presided over by a personal deity (pp. 20-30). Miss Yonge makes no apology for her view of Providence, nor does Miss Sewell, and this is one of their strengths. Another is that their perspective is unashamedly feminine. In a delightful essay on "Authorship" reprinted from the 1892 Monthly Packet, Miss Yonge defends priggishness in the woman author's heroes. Miss Sewell no doubt agreed with the following advice to women writers of fiction:
It is true that women's good heroes are apt to be called prigs. But be content to have them so. If you sacrifice your womanly nature in the attempt at the world's notion of manly dash, you only sacrifice yourself, and mar the performance, unless it is only a very slight sketch from the outside. A woman cannot do a man truthfully from within, anymore than one nationality can represent another from with- in. And if the ideal given is often called a prig, it is because she is incapable of the 'Carle-hemp' in part, and also in part, because a certain depth of self-respect and of self-assertion, often bordering on self-conceit, is really a needful weapon of defence in the midst of scenes of temptation. Boys and good poor people find it so. There is much to be said for the so-called prig; but if you find your hero growing into one, frankly own it, or else give him some loveable weakness. [A Chaplet, p. 192]
Elizabeth Sewell knew how to give loveable weaknesses to gouty old admirals and, in her later novels, even to clergymen, but there is nothing loveable about her priggish young men — John Bullish Claude Egerton or the "donnish" Mr. Neville except, we are asked to believe, to the rebellious Helen Clare and the spontaneous Marietta Randolph, and this is one of Miss Sewell's major drawbacks as a novelist.
An overall evaluation of Miss Sewell's skill as a novelist must fall somewhere in the middle ground between the effusions of Miss Palfrey in 1854 and the damnation by faint praise of George Saintsbury in 1913. The earlier critic, having read the first six novels "edited by the Rev. William Sewell, B. D." — that is, up through The Experience of Life, declares:
We have read some of these volumes with so much delight, that — like poor Lucy Snow, the impressible heroine of "Villette, " who was obliged to let her enthusiastic gratitude for the sensible, manly, commonplace letters of the compassionate Dr. Bretton exhale itself in a few pages sacred to her own perusal, before she could write to them answers which might with prudence be offered for that of another—we could almost find it in our heart to stuff one review of them, for our own satisfaction, with half or three quarters of our whole vocabulary of eulogy; and afterwards to prepare a second, more moderate in its tone, for the assent of our calmer readers. [Christian Examiner, 57:185]
Saintsbury, surveying "The Mid-Victorian Novel" seven years after Miss Sewell's death, felt that the didactic element in her work had got "the upper band." He opined that she wrote "good English" but deplored the absence of "illustration or ornament from history, literature, her own fancy, current fashions . . . and so forth." The result, Saintsbury continues, is "a certain dead-aliveness." There follows a concession, the effect of which is quickly negated by that cruelest of all epithets, "dull." Here are Saintsbury's words:
Sometimes, for a scene or two, her truth to nature and fact is rewarded by that curious sense of recognition which the reader feels in the presence of actual mimesis of creation of fictitious fact and person. But this is not common: and the epithet "dull," which too commonly only stigmatises the person using it, may really suggest itself not seldom in reference to Miss Sewell. A "success of esteem" is about the utmost that can be accorded her.18
Saintsbury's next paragraph begins, "With Miss Yonge the case was quite different." From there he goes on to praise Miss Yonge, working up to the statement that she was "hardly ever dull."
Margaret Maison, in Search Your Soul, Eustace, helps to even the score. After setting down themes common to the two major Tractarian novelists, she declares:
But Miss Sewell can by no means be dismissed as a kind of lesser Miss Yonge. In many ways she is the superior novelist. Less "churchy" and more introspective than her contemporary, she goes deeper into the inner life of her characters, exploring and revealing what she describes as "that busy world within — that tumultuous crowd of thoughts and feelings, -which at every moment are born and die and are forgotten, but upon which God has stamped the seal of immortality.'
Combining these solemn convictions with skilful powers of psychological analysis, Miss Sewell is pre-eminently the novelist of consciences in all religious fiction, their self-examinations are the most analytic, their scruples the most minutely exacting. "The real difficulty of a Christian life". Miss Sewell tells us, is "the struggle against secret sins", and it is into this secret personal feminine world that she so successfully penetrates. [pp. 42-43]
The diverse character of Sewell criticism is owing in part to the changing fortunes of the religious novel in the three different periods represented by Palfrey, Saintsbury, and Maison. The religious novel was in its heyday in 1854, when Sarah Palfrey appraised Miss Sewell's novels; it had suffered a decline in popularity by 1913, when Saintsbury made his appraisal; by the time Mrs. Maison wrote in 1961, critics had discovered the novel of ideas and the psychological novel, which perhaps gave Miss Sewell the edge over Miss Yonge, whose fiction is clearly more extroverted.20
In attempting an assessment of Miss Sewell's fiction on purely aesthetic grounds — if such a thing is possible — one is reminded of "the little girl who had a little curl right in the middle of her forehead." When Miss Sewell's work is good, it is "very, very good"; when it is bad it is "horrid. " It is "horrid" only in Cleve Hall and The Earl's Daughter. It is "very good" throughout The Experience of Life and in parts of Margaret Percival, Ivors, Ursula, and Home Life and After Life. Of the "good" novels, Margaret Percival and Ivors attempt to communicate directly a young girl's struggles to determine what her life's values will be and how to employ those values in relating to other persons. The pull of conflicting religious philosophies and life styles is effectively dramatized, except for occasional lapses into the melodramatic. The Experience of Life, Ursula, Home and After Life are even more effective because the spiritual growing pains are viewed from the perspective of an older woman looking back on her own youth or, inHome and After Life, trying to guide young daughters and step-daughters through difficult years. Mellowness lends an emotional distance which sharpens perspective, leaves room for humor, and militates against emotionalism.
In The Experience of Life Elizabeth Sewell comes as close as she ever came to rising above "differences of speculative system."21 It would be virtually impossible for a non-Churchman to read Laneton Parsonage with any appreciation; remove Miss Sewell's views on the specifics of theology and education, and there is almost nothing left. Not so The Experience of Life. Anyone who has not forgotten what adolescence is like can enter into Sally's world with sufficient sympathy to engage imaginatively in her hopes and fears. This novel is what its title suggests — an experience of life — in part because its people are real. We are spared both the "seraphs in chrysalis" and the villains whose evil "consists of impropriety and some things she [the author] has vaguely heard tell of." 22
It is a pity that Miss Sewell's artistic conscience was not as active as her Christian conscience. There might have been more Experiences of Life. Most of her fiction actually falls on the misty flats between valley and summit. When it is neither "very good" nor "horrid" what is it? Saintsbury had the word: it is "dull."
Last modified 24 March 2008